Bungee-jumpers take the plunge BOING!


Rehoboth Beach, Del. -- Slowly, a crane lifts a pink, steel basket, stopping it 140 feet above a crowd of curious spectators.

Kathy Spanich, wearing a chest harness attached to a long, heavy-duty elastic cord, stands in the basket, gazing at the horizon. She is nervous.

Minutes pass.

And then a countdown begins . . . Five-four-three-two-one.

"Ahhhhh," screams Ms. Spanich as she free falls toward the ground, descending like a spider from its web.

Ms. Spanich has just bungee-jumped -- a sport that, in recent years, has grown from being a trendy hobby for a thrill-seeking few to a $40 million-year industry.

But this week, the Sussex County council, concerned about traffic jams and fender benders caused by gawking motorists, banned further jumping sites until more stringent laws are in place, says Robert L. Stickels, county administrator.

And two recent bungee accidents in Michigan -- including one death -- have further fueled the debate over the sport's safety.

Aficionados, however, say those accidents were caused by operators failing to make sure either cords or cranes were operating properly.

"Those accidents have been attributed to the operator, not to the equipment," says Greg Glassock, president of the North American Bungee Association.

In the five years since it was introduced in this country, bungee-jumping -- which originated in the Pacific islands where native men demonstrated their manhood by jumping from trees with vines tied to their ankles -- has developed into a 200-operation industry nationwide. Some 3 million bungee-jumps have been performed and only two deaths -- the other from a hot air balloon in California -- have occurred, according to Mr. Glassock.

However, because of safety concerns, bungee-jumping is currently not available in Maryland. "In past weeks, there's been three accidents in states where bungee-jumping is permitted," says Jim Morkosky, an administrator for Maryland state safety inspections.

The state allows jumping only from permanent structures -- and although several firms have applied to open sites, none have met the requirements yet, he says. In addition, his office has received calls for information about Maryland's regulations from Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In Delaware, regulation is left to counties. Sussex County contains the state's only two operations. Both use mobile cranes to lift jumpers.

Before the county's ban, Ultimate Recoil hoped to open a site in Fenwick Island to draw Ocean City crowds.

Both Delaware sites maintain their operations are safe. At Ultimate Recoil, where Ms. Spanich was jumping, body harnesses, which all jumpers must wear, have been test-pulled to withstand 10,000 pounds of stress, says owner Mark Hess. A 100-pound cord connecting the jumper to the box can withstand 8,000 pounds of stress, he says.

"We haven't put a Band-Aid on anybody," Mr. Hess says. "We have a backup system on everything."

Jumpers pay $49 to $95, depending on the height from which they fall and whether they jump with cords attached to both ankles and a body harness. Ankle straps allow jumpers to fall upside down. The body harness allows an upright fall. Jumpers stop about 30 to 40 feet from the ground.

Before jumping, participants must sign waivers of liability. There are no weight restrictions but people with heart and other medical problems are discouraged from jumping.

"A lot of people [are] doing this because they want to say they bungee-jumped," says Scott Strupe, jump master at Vertical Venture, the other bungee site along Route 1.

Although some may find jumping intimidating, Mr. Strupe says these crane bungee operations are not for true thrill seekers. The more adventurous, he says, prefer to jump from bridges or hot air balloons.

Susan DelleDonne, 23, of Rehoboth Beach, showed up at Vertical Venture three times, asking questions and watching jumpers, before taking the plunge.

"It's kind of scary when you first jump out and are falling," she says. "But I have to say I loved it."

Says Mr. Glassock: "Bungee-jumping appeals to the basic sense of fear people have about heights.

"Everything tells you it's not OK to jump but when you do and survive, the exhilaration overcomes you."

Neither Terry Smith nor Phil Yarnall, watching bungee-jumpers at Vertical Venture, were convinced.

"I'll have to watch a while longer before I jump," says Mr. Smith, 46, of Derwood.

"We're too old," adds Mr. Yarnall, 48, of Brookville. "And we're too analytical."

As for Ms. Spanich, she says, "I thought people were nuts to do it until we came here. I didn't feel anything falling. It was neat."

Her mother, Nancy, confides that watching her 29-year-old daughter take the plunge was "horrible."

But watching and worrying didn't stop her 26-year-old daughter, Becky, from taking the leap, too. "It was great," Becky says. "It was just great."


What: Bungee jumping.

*Where: Vertical Venture, Route 1, Rehoboth Beach.

Call (302) 226-1150 or (800) 538-7586.

Hours: noon to midnight.

Costs: 150-foot jump, $60; ankle strap, $75; 200-foot jump, $80; ankle strap, $95.

* Where: Ultimate Recoil, Route 1, between Rehoboth Mall and Food Lion Shopping Center, Rehoboth Beach.

Call: (302) 644-1804.

Hours: noon to midnight.

Costs: 150-foot jump, $49.99; ankle strap, $65; two jumps and T-shirt or video, $80.

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